29 January 2008

Martyrs Day

I really want to leave Kathmandu. I am sick of the pollution; I am sick of the touts; I am sick of the power outages (6 hours a day). But I am thwarted again and again in my attempts to escape. On Monday, I had planned to visit the Bangladesh embassy to get myself a visa. When I called up and learned that Americans have to pay $100, I balked and delayed. Finally deciding that it's not so much money when hotels and meals will probably cost me less than $5/day, I decided to go ahead with it today. So I submitted my materials (had to hunt around for a place to photocopy my passport because of a power cut), and the lady at the desk told me to come back in two days. Two days?! Yes, because tomorrow is a holiday--Martyrs (Martyrs'?) Day. Gasp. Sigh. Oh well. All I have to say is that Bangladesh better blow my f*cking socks off for the trouble and expense it's costing me to visit it. I am very optimistic, though. I hear the people are exceedingly friendly (and you can trust them), nobody hassles you, and there are virtually no tourists.

On the way back from the Bangladesh embassy, I passed the (new?) American embassy. As usual, it is the most absurdly enormous, extravagant, and vulgar building in the neighborhood, possibly the city. I think it's the only building I've seen in this country with an attached parking lot, too, which may be appropriate. I asked to go in to use the toilet, but they told me to come back during regular hours for citizen services. Typical.

While sitting at a cafe today, I mused about what it means to be a traveler, as I often, self-indulgently, do. One has lots of time to think on the road. And what I thought was that travelers are rather shady people. I wasn't able to supply an address in Bangladesh where I'll be staying, an entry date, or the length of time I plan to be there--and the receptionist found this surprising and suspicious. "I'm backpacker scum," I helpfully explained, "I don't have an itinerary." So she told me the name of a hotel in Dhaka to fill in. But you see? You're supposed to have a plan, a purpose in life, or people won't easily trust you. Without direction--perhaps this is what people think--you are too likely to fall prey to whimsy, distraction, and sin. While traveling, a usual question is what do you do--presumably, what do you do when you're not traveling, when you're back in your real native realm. As someone who's spent four of the last nine years either traveling or living abroad, I find this question uncomfortable. I usually say I'm a student, which seems decent enough and nicely causes most people to lose interest ("student" means "poor" and "unimportant"). I hate it when they actually ask what kind of student I am. Telling people you're studying for a Ph.D. in English literature can be a real conversation killer, I assure you. And when I tell people I'm just traveling at the moment--I don't have anything else going on: no job, no spouse, etc.--their eyes narrow, they shift, they say "Oh." Some people understand, of course, and it is always agreeable to find the society of fellow vagabonds and drifters. They're all around you, my friends, but you won't notice them until you enter their world (unless you go to Bangkok). I also realized today (not for the first time, I admit) that by traveling so much in my 20s--a thought more on my mind as I approach my 30th birthday in only a few months--and spending the remainder of my time as a grad student, I've sort of dreamed them away. Even "teaching English" in Japan was one, long daydream, given how little I had to do and how much of an outsider I was. Which brings me to my point: regular people have regulated lives, and the traveler does not. You can safely assume that most people have a routine, a fairly boring routine, that involves some combination of work and family responsibilities. Events out of the ordinary are exceptional. An unusual day is cause for alarm or interest. For the traveler, however, every day is unusual; every day is interesting. So you never really know what the traveler--particularly the long term traveler--is up to. He/she can never tell you everything. There is too much. And that doesn't even take into account what the traveler is *thinking*. Without the usual routine and responsibilities to dwell on, the traveler has the leisure to meditate continually on any number of things, things often beyond the pale of respectability. We all self-censor in the course of everyday life; how else can one bear the strain of its banality? Torn away from our usual context, however, our rebellious nature froths to the surface. And the longer we're away, the more we fail to live up to those embedded norms of behavior, the more even the best of us become, to varying extents, trouble-makers.

I have a question: if most speakers of English now or soon will live outside the original English-speaking nations, does that mean, e.g., American English is or eventually will be a minority dialect?

1 comment:

Jhenn said...

Responsibility can get bent!!!!